That was in 2006, when the world was just becoming exposed to a professional wrestler in an evangelist's body. Four years later, Verne was there when Tebow scored on fourth-and-1 against Florida State. Along the way, Verne has called 22 Tim Tebow games, virtually all of them the most significant of Tebow's career. Saturday will mark the 23rd and final time the word Te-Bow, uttered with that particular Vernian inflection that turns the word into a hearty slap on the back, will pass Lundquist's lips for an audience of millions.
In our media fragmented age, the connection of one national announcer to a single player is unheard of. That's because the big games are sliced and diced a variety of ways so that many broadcast networks end up with the ability to showcase star athletes. Not with Tebow. The SEC's unique arrangement with CBS has led to virtually every big game the Gators have played in the past four years, outside of the bowls, being telecast on the network. And when you get right down to it, Tebow and Verne are connected in a way that only has one parallel, Howard Cosell and Muhammad Ali.
Sure, you can quibble with this analogy, Lundquist's connection to Tebow only extends for four years and won't carry Tebow into the professional arena. But it's as close to a modern version as we're likely to see. And does anyone really believe that Tebow is going to further define himself as a professional athlete? What we see with Tebow is what we get, and what we see is due, in no small measure, to Verne Lundquist's calling of the games. Lundquist has an affection that is undisguised when it comes to Tebow. You get the feeling that when Lundquist passes off the mortal coil, he's going to leave his home in Steamboat Springs, Colo., to the Gators' wunder-quarterback.
It's worth noting that Gary Danielson has also sat alongside Verne for these games, but Danielson, although he's warmed up to become perhaps the paramount Tebow cheerleader, has never been as astounded and entertained by Tebow as Verne. Danielson has been more clinical and dispassionate, the Holmes to Verne's Watson. For instance, when Verne exploded in delight over Tebow's jump pass against LSU in 2006, Danielson went back and diagrammed why the play worked.
But over time, Verne's homerism has won over Danielson as well. Particularly this season, where the duo's love affair with Tebow has turned the six CBS broadcasts this season into a valentine to number 15. By the 2009 LSU game, when Tebow threw a horrific interception late in the contest and Danielson exhorted, "Oh, no!," you felt like Danielson felt genuine pain for Tebow's failing.
It's probably a good thing that Verne and Gary weren't calling the Kentucky game when Tebow was knocked cold. Both men might have had to excuse themselves from the booth.
And while he's been an unabashed Tebow homer, Verne's homerism has never been as artificially saccharine and over the top as Thom Brennanman's call of last year's national championship game. Whereas Brennaman nasally extolled the virtues of Tebow and set loose more Tebow hate in four hours than Verne had in three years, memorably including the phrase about everyone who has been around Tebow being better for it, Lundquist's homerism has always been that of a eager and entertained grandfather.
By golly did you see what my grandson just did?
His calls of Tebow games have been laced with wonder and moments of genuine pleasure, as if he has never quite believed what he has seen on the field. Moreover, I think Verne has hit the right tone to sum up the Tebow canon at Florida, the soundtrack of a Gator football life, replete with clashing helmets and primordial Tebow screams of exhortation, is inextricably bracketed with Verne Lundquist guffaws and cackles.
But that doesn't mean SEC fans, myself included, haven't occasionally rolled our eyes at Lundquist's excesses. Just as we've rolled our eyes at our own grandparents oft-told stories about the time we used the bathroom by ourselves or scored our first goal in soccer. It's not that the stories aren't true, it's just that we've all heard them before so many times that we could tell them ourselves.
Tell us again, Verne, about Tim Tebow and Riley Cooper being roommates.
Only, just as your grandparents did, Lundquist retains a childlike glee on each good-natured retelling.
And maybe that's the ultimate difference between Lundquist and Tebow, Cosell and Ali. The latter duo entertained each other on a national stage, playing off the subtle intricacies of one another to create something new. Lundquist's call of Tebow's successes has never sounded particularly new or creative, but it has sounded authentic. And ultimately that's why both men are connected so clearly, because neither brings artifice to their craft, they are as you see and hear them.
Having written all this, you knew I couldn't offer up the sweet without the satire. Now as the final days of the Tebow-Lundquist union come to a close, it's the winter of CBS's telecast, and only one game remains. How, you might wonder, is Lundquist coping with Tebow's departure.
Fortunately, I know.
1. Tearfully watching General Douglas McArthur's farewell address to Congress and repeating to himself, "Old quarterbacks don't die, they just fade away."
2. Wearing eyeblack featuring obscure Bible verses to impress the Tebow's.
But the fruit of the Tebow is love, joy, peace, long-suffering, gentleness, goodness, faith.
3. Practicing jump passes in his senior water aerobics class.
4. Rewriting The Secret Life of Walter Mitty with new exploits and a new title, The Secret Life of Verne Tebow.
"Verne, put on your gloves, it's cold out," said his wife as they drove to Whole Foods market.
Lundquist pulled on his gloves, it was hot in the steamy jungles of the Phillipines and there were still many foreskins left to be circumcised.
5. Contemplating moving to Gainesville and being Tebow and Riley Cooper's roommate for his final semester in Gainesville.
6. Trying to decide if it's asking for too much to let him line up in Aaron Hernandez's place at practice one day to catch the underhanded Tebow shovel pass and score a touchdown.
Upon scoring, Lundquist would take off his helmet, fashion a kite from a brown paper sack on the sideline, toss it up in the air, pretend that the paper sack had been struck by lightning, fall to the ground, and then spring back up running his hand through his long white mane.
He calls it: Doing the Ben Franklin.
Not that he's actually thought about it that much.
7. Planning a second home in whichever NFL city drafts Tebow, replete with a blown up photo of Tebow covered in paint from last year's Florida State game which will be affixed to the ceiling above his bed.
8. Fantasizing that Tim Tebow will ask him to be in his wedding party and that he will escort a Kappa Delta girl down the aisle as everyone stands and claps.
Then, at a post-wedding reception, Tebow will look off his best man and point to Verne. "You do the toast, big man," Tebow will say.
9. Continuing to send hate mail to Kentucky defensive end Taylor Wyndham. The notes are made up of different size letters cut from newsprint and always say the same thing: "Taylor is a girl's name, you girl! [Cackle]."
10. Writing down memorable sign-offs from the final game. Right now his favorite is this, "Tebow wept."